Rugby: Tall order for Highlanders to make semis

The Highlanders have four games left in this year's Super 14 and coach Glenn Moore still believes his side can make the semifinals.

Even a class of 5-year-olds could probably tell you cutting 14 down to four is a tight squeeze.

And that is what makes it doubly difficult for the Highlanders to make the semifinals of the Super 14.

Getting into the top four from a 14-team competition is hard, especially when the number in the losses column is five, as it is for the Highlanders with four rounds remaining.

But it is possible.

In 2006, the first year of the expanded competition, the Bulls made it into the semifinals, in fourth spot, after winning just seven games.

The Crusaders finished third on the competition ladder in 2007 after losing five games.

But the key to those sides making the play-offs was bonus points.

The Bulls had eight of them, and also managed a draw, to get up into fourth.

The Crusaders the following year had 10 bonus points and that was undoubtedly a reason the side finished third after getting their All Blacks back midway through the season.

So the Highlanders, sitting on 22 points (six bonus points) with four matches to play, are not in a hopeless position.

It could be better, especially if they had won one of those close games early on, but that is another story.

With just nine points covering the teams from first to 10th, where the Highlanders sit, any team still has a chance.

That, in a strange sort of way, works to the Highlanders' advantage.

There is no team that is plainly better than everyone else.

So not one of the play-off spots is sewn up.

As even a kindergarten kid could lecture to you, four is a bigger number than three, and indeed two.

But for the Highlanders the bare minimum they must do is win all their remaining games - and win them well.

That would put them up to a minimum of 38 points and, in a very congested table, that could be good enough.

Winning, with the maximum four bonus points, could see them up to 42 points, which in the past three years would have got them into the play-offs.

Doing that is no easy task, but making the top four was never designed to be a simple walk in the park.

With so many teams in the running, even the sides at the top of the table are far from certain of making the play-offs.

And upsets are becoming the trademark of this year's competition.

Form, and momentum, is very much temporary.

The table-topping Chiefs have to face the Bulls in Pretoria, then play the Stormers at Cape Town.

Both these sides are coming back from long tours down under and will plainly want to enjoy home comforts straight away.

The Chiefs then have to face the Hurricanes and Brumbies, both in Hamilton, and a win in either of these matches is no guarantee.

The Sharks, who seemed destined to host the final a couple of weeks ago, no longer look invincible.

They have the bye this week, so will lose ground, and then play the Highlanders, Waratahs and Bulls, albeit at home.

But Absa Stadium is no longer a fortress and playing teams which have plenty to play for, the Sharks will have to be at their absolute best.

If any side has a favourable draw in the run home, the Crusaders may be that side.

With skipper Richie McCaw back in action, the side must fancy its chances against the Cheetahs and Lions, both in South Africa, before coming home to take on the Reds.

Their final match against the Blues, in Auckland, will be pivotal.

The Waratahs appear to have finally been exposed.

Playing dreary 10-man rugby all year has caught up with them, and they are going to need to bounce back in South Africa to get into the play-offs.

The Highlanders must have other results go their way.

But that is going to happen.

There are obviously a lot of sides in front of them, but many of them are going to play against each other.

What the Highlanders must do is obvious: they must win.

Win four games, score four tries in each, and they could finish fourth.

Simple as that.

 

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